As I mentioned in a post last week, I want to take some time this month to highlight the accomplishments of some of our African-American brothers and sisters in honour of Black History Month. We all know about Martin Luther King, Harriet Tubman, Bessie Coleman, Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X and many others who are routinely highlighted during Black History Month, so I wanted to take an opportunity to seek out some who we may not have heard of before. Today, I am focusing on one remarkable man …
Daniel Hale Williams III, was born in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania in 1856, five years before the start of the Civil War. His father, Daniel Hale Williams II, was a barber, having inherited a barbershop, but more importantly, he also worked with the Equal Rights League, a black civil rights organization.
When Daniel was only ten years old, his father died, and young Daniel was sent to live with family friends in Baltimore, Maryland. Early on, Daniel became a shoemaker’s apprentice, but he didn’t really like making shoes, and ultimately decided to return to his family, who had since moved to Illinois.
Once in Illinois, Daniel thought to follow in his father’s footsteps and took up barbering, but he didn’t really like that either. He wanted something more, and part of what he wanted was knowledge, so he sought to pursue an education. As such, he became an apprentice to a surgeon, Dr. Henry Palmer, and at the same time attended Chicago Medical College.
Having finally found his calling, Williams set up a practice on Chicago’s South side after graduating from medical school, and he also returned to Chicago Medical College to teach anatomy. He was known as “Doctor Dan” by his patients.
Due to the discrimination of the day, African-American citizens were still barred from being admitted to hospitals and black doctors were refused staff positions. Firmly believing this needed to change, in May 1891, Williams opened Provident Hospital and Training School for Nurses, the nation’s first hospital with a nursing and intern program that had a racially integrated staff. The facility, where Williams worked as a surgeon, was publicly championed by famed abolitionist and writer Frederick Douglass.
On July 9th, 1893, an oppressively hot day, James Cornish had worked a long day and was too wound up to go straight home. James thought to stop at his favourite bar to unwind a bit, but, as will happen when the heat gets to people, a fight soon broke out, and Mr. Cornish had the bad luck to become embroiled in the brawl, causing him to end up with a knife in his heart!
Turns out it was Cornish’s lucky day, for he was taken to Provident Hospital and placed in the care of none other than our Dr. Dan. Aat first Cornish seemed to recover, but the next day he rapidly lost ground. Williams, despite having little medical equipment and no idea what was going on inside of Cornish’s chest, decided to be the first in the world to crack open a human chest and try to fix a human heart.
Williams found a tiny tear in the pericardium, the sac that surrounds the heart, and with just a few small stitches, was able to save the life of Mr. James Cornish! This with no X-rays, no antibiotics, no reliable anesthesia. Cornish spent fifty-one days in the hospital, but he lived. A surgery that had been inconceivable at the beginning of July was, by the end of September, a recognized medical possibility.
The following year, 1894, Williams moved to Washington, D.C., where he was appointed the chief surgeon of the Freedmen’s Hospital, which provided care for formerly enslaved African Americans. The facility had fallen into neglect and had a high mortality rate. Williams worked diligently on revitalization, improving surgical procedures, increasing specialization, launching ambulance services and continuing to provide opportunities for black medical professionals, among other feats. In 1895, he co-founded the National Medical Association, a professional organization for black medical practitioners, as an alternative to the American Medical Association, which didn’t allow African-American membership.
Williams left Freedmen’s Hospital in 1898. He married Alice Johnson, and the newlyweds moved to Chicago, where Williams returned to his work at Provident. Soon after the turn of the century, he worked at Cook County Hospital and later at St. Luke’s, a large medical institution with ample resources.
Beginning in 1899, Williams also made annual trips to Nashville, Tennessee, where he was a voluntary visiting clinical professor at Meharry Medical College for more than two decades. He became a charter member of the American College of Surgeons in 1913.
Sadly, Daniel Hale Williams III experienced a debilitating stroke in 1926 and died five years later, on August 4, 1931, in Idlewild, Michigan.
I know of very few, if any, in the field of medicine whose contributions rival Daniel Williams’. This is a man whose hand I wish I could shake, a man I wish I could know, a man I am honoured to highlight during Black History Month 2018.
I so enjoyed the research and writing of this post. A special thanks to John Fioravanti for reminding me to step away from Trumpopia for a minute and focus on somebody who is truly deserving of my time and attention.